WE WERE THERE: The Story of Working Women in America by Barbara M. Wertheimer

WE WERE THERE: The Story of Working Women in America

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As an affiliate of the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, which, in 1974, gave birth to the Coalition of Labor Union Women, Wertheimer writes to increase women's sense of participation in the heroic 19th-century days of labor organization. Her scope extends to women on the frontier, to women as couriers and spies in the Revolutionary Army, and as organizers of medical aid and relief for Civil War combatants. All the traditional names are there: Phyllis Wheatley, Abigail Adams, Clara Barton, Prudence Crandall. But Wertheimer's primary interest is in the fledgling unionization efforts of the Lowell factory girls, the Lynn shoemakers--even the Troy laundresses. Dressed up with broadsides and ballads (many of them ladylike and none-too-militant), she gives readable accounts of little-known heroines of labor fighting for the 10-hour day, for better bathroom facilities, and for higher wages. Always the battle was two-pronged: against the bosses and against male co-workers who resisted the women's efforts to achieve parity--or even representation within unions. Wertheimer comes into her own with the founding of the Women's Trade Union League in the first decade of the 20th century, showing its persistent efforts to gain recognition and support by the Gompers-dominated AFL. Though Gompers paid lip service, when push came to shove, money for strikes was not forthcoming and Gompers flatly rejected the women's demand for a seat on the AFL executive board. The issue was complicated by the onerous reality that ""if unions had insisted on equal pay. . . employers would have hired men."" Despite its excellent coverage of women in the ILGWU, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and the Wobbly-led 1912 Lawrence strike, Wertheimer's book lacks the breadth of Baxendall, Gordon, and Reverby's America's Working Women and pays little attention to Louise Kapp Howe's Pink-Collar Workers. WW II advances are barely mentioned. Useful--but primarily for organizers and activists.

Pub Date: April 15th, 1977
Publisher: Pantheon